Herbs and spices 101

I am a spice-aholic.  My cupboard is overflowing with spices, and yet, I still need more! I just made a huge order from Penzey’s and I’m already planning my next one…

I firmly believe that the quality and variety of the seasonings you use can make or break a meal.  Truth is, many of the spices you find at the grocery store will add little flavor to your dishes.  I find there is a real, noticeable difference when comparing two dishes that are completely identical save for the quality of the seasoning.

The good news is, however, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, nor do you have to become an addict like me, to improve the flavor of your dishes.  For the most part, it is just a matter of knowing when to use fresh vs. dried, whole spices vs. pre-ground, and when to use homemade seasoning mixes vs. store-bought.

Herbs

Some herbs retain and transfer their flavor very well after drying, and others do not.  Do not think that you have to always purchase fresh herbs for the best flavor.  Dried herbs are obviously much more economical, and impart a nice, concentrated essence when added to recipes.  There are a few, however, that do not.  Here is a brief list:

Keeping and storing herbs


Dried herbs do not keep indefinitely and will expire after a year or two, so be sure to periodically check the dates on your jars.  The defensive chemicals produced by herbs which make them so delicious to us DO dissipate after some time, which I’ll touch on again later.

Fresh herbs obviously expire much more quickly, so I usually buy however much I need for a given recipe.  If there is any leftover, placing them in water by a windowsill has worked for me to keep them going for a week or so.

This works best if they still have the roots attached, but normally still works for me even when they don’t.  If they quickly start to wilt, transfer the jar to the fridge.

Growing your own herbs

Having to continually purchase fresh herbs can be a pain, but luckily they are easy to grow, even in container gardens.  All you really need is a good source of light, and the diligence to water them every so often.

If you have a window that gets a lot of light in your home, you can grow any herbs indoors year-round.  I don’t really get good enough light in my home, so I rely on my garden.

Basil requires warm weather and will die at the first sight of frost.  But, now is the time to start your seeds if you plan to plant them outdoors this spring.  Once you get it going, it is pretty hardy.  Just keep it watered and harvest leaves from the top, periodically pulling off any blossoms to keep it from bolting.  And enjoy its heavenly fragrance and flavor all summer!

Mint, on the other hand, is almost impossible to screw up.  In fact, do NOT plant it in the ground — keep it in a container lest you want an ENTIRE GARDEN full of mint!   I had my mint in a pot on my patio about a foot away from the soil, and it actually rooted its branches itself several times in the ground.  It grows like crazy.  Mint will tolerate a few frosts sometimes, and mine was still kicking through October, but generally will not last through the whole winter in this climate.

Cilantro actually likes cooler weather and will expire in the heat of mid-summer.  Cilantro does not transplant well but seeds can be easily sowed directly into your garden.  Plant it in early spring and it should last for a few months, bolting around July.  Sometimes I harvest the seeds for coriander, but if you leave them there, the cilantro will re-seed itself and you may get a fall harvest.  I actually still have some clinging to life in my herb garden from the fall re-seeding.  Or, you can just manually sow new seeds for a fall crop.

Always add fresh basil and cilantro at the end of cooking.  Their essences are very ephemeral, which is why they don’t dry well, and will cook off if exposed to heat for too long.

Spices

Spices are usually just one component of a plant that is used to add flavor to recipes or for medicinal purposes.  Often they are seeds, but many other plant parts can be used, such as tree bark (such as cinnamon), the stigma of the flower (such as saffron), or roots (turmeric).

Like the compounds found in plant leaves that provide us with herbs, the flavor of spices are the result of plant allelochemicals used to either deter or attract pests or pollinators.  These chemicals are found in all parts of the plant, but may be especially concentrated in one component or another depending on its particular phenology, or what part of the plant requires the highest amount of defense for its survival.  Often, the reproductive product of the plant, its seeds, have high concentrations as a protective measure, as well as the leaves, to prevent defoliation, but this may lessen or increase overtime.   This is why so many plants are useful for multiple purposes, such as cilantro leaves and coriander seeds.

As with herbs, these chemicals have varying degrees of longevity once harvested.  Whole spices can last for several years, but once exposed to heat, these essences are expressed and brought to the surface, providing an intense fragrance and flavor.  Have you ever toasted a bagel covered in sesame or poppy seeds, and noticed how it starts to smell really freaking good after browning a bit?  Yep.

Once these oils and compounds have been expressed, however, you have about two weeks before they dissipate and the spice becomes rancid.  Which is why I recommend always starting with whole spices where appropriate. Your recipes will improve 100% with this simple step.  Pre-ground spices have already been toasted and ground, which means that by the time you get them, they are actually rancid.

Whenever possible, buy the whole, unground spice– for example, cumin seeds instead of ground cumin — toast it briefly in a dry skillet until lightly browned and fragrant, and grind up with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder.  There will be a noticeable difference in the final product, I promise!  And the whole seed is a much more versatile ingredient, sometimes you want to keep them intact anyway.  Of course, it’s not always possible — I almost never see whole turmeric root in the store, for example.  But do make the effort when you can.

There are hundreds of kinds of spices available across the world, and I can’t possibly discuss them all, but here are a few common spices or combinations:

Baking spices

In the U.S., cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc are mostly used in sweet recipes.  Generally, I prefer to purchase whole cinnamon and nutmeg always.  Nutmeg especially.  Pre-ground and freshly ground nutmeg are pretty much completely different spices.  It grates very easily; use a zester and you’ll have however much you need in only a few seconds. Just return the remaining nutmeg to the jar.

Cinnamon does not grate quite as easily; it’s best to use a coffee grinder, and even then it takes quite a few minutes of grinding to get it to the right consistency.  Sometimes I’ll cheat and use high-quality pre-ground cinnamon from Penzey’s, or I’ll grind up a large batch of it and store it myself so I can be sure it’s at least somewhat fresh.  But, for best results, grind up the cinnamon as you need it.

I use fresh ginger when cooking, and usually purchase a large root, peel it, and store it in my freezer (use the edge of a spoon to peel all the crevices).  I can whip it out and zest it right into recipes as needed.  Most baking recipes call for ground ginger however.  So in that case, I just make sure to have fresher, high-quality ground ginger on hand in my cupboard.

Throughout much of Asia, however, what we consider baking spices are used heavily in savory dishes.  Curry seasoning and garam masala are good examples of where the above spices are used in a totally different fashion.  And you can easily make your own by toasting and grinding the spices together.  Here is a recipe for garam masala, here is one for curry powder.

Fenugreek is another spice commonly used in Indian cooking.  Star anise is more common in other cuisines, particularly southeast Asia, but imparts a delicious licorice-y flavor to sweet or savory dishes.  And it just looks really cool :). Coriander, cardamom and cloves are also commonly used.  For many dishes, you do not have to extract the little seeds from cardamom pods (green ones above); the whole thing can be toasted and ground up.

Vanilla is another seasoning derived from an orchid plant native to Central America.  Although expensive, this is one ingredient where you should splurge.  Vanilla is necessarily expensive because it cannot be mass-produced; cheaper “vanilla” extracts therefore always cut corners in some way, and sometimes do not even contain any real vanilla at all!

I really love Mexican vanilla, and I make anyone who visits Mexico bring some back for me, but you can also get it at Penzey’s.  Madagascar vanilla is supposed to be the best, however, though I do personally prefer Mexican.

Of course, you can also purchase it in whole bean form, and infuse it in vodka to make your own extract, or in sugar to make vanilla sugar (so good!).  Or, just add the beans directly to recipes.

I’ve always wondered why vanilla is sometimes synonymous with boring.  Truly, vanilla is a beautiful, exotic, and delicious flavoring.  When done right of course.

Savory spices and spice mixtures

Cumin is one of my favorite spices.  It goes in anything from Indian dishes to Asian to Southwestern to Middle Eastern.

Black pepper is the basis for many recipes around the world.  With the exception of pink peppercorns, which come from a different species, colored varieties of peppercorns are all the same fruit, at varying stages of ripeness and amounts of processing.  Sichuan peppercorns, sometimes called prickly ash, are used to provide heat to Chinese dishes, but give off a different sensation than the capsaisicn in chili peppers — it is more of a tingling/numbness.

Chili peppers are used heavily in many cuisines.  I always keep some dried chilies on hand to toss into soups and stews, stir-fries, or grind into powder to make my own chili powder.

I especially love chipotle peppers (center) for their smoky flavor.  They’re great for adding a hearty, almost “meaty” flavor to vegetarian dishes.

Salt


Salt is necessary for survival but in excess it can be deadly.  All salt is just sodium chloride, and it all comes from the sea, so I am a little skeptical of new-agey claims that we should be eating exorbitantly priced colorful imported salts.  The idea is that these salts are unrefined and contain minerals from the earth that are important to our health.  I haven’t read this in any legitimate source, however.

Regular table salt is infused with iodine.  Kosher salt is more purely NaCl, and is recommended in a lot of recipes because it does not include iodine or other ingredients that may react with recipes.

Salt gets a bad reputation and should absolutely be avoided in excess.  But this does not mean you should remove the salt shaker from your table.  Adequately salting dishes is the single most important part of any successful recipe (in my humble opinion, obvs :)).

Here’s why:  humans have four basic taste receptors — sour, sweet, bitter and salt (plus “umami”).  We do not have taste receptors for, say, nutmeg.  Or cumin.  So without salt, you don’t really taste anything.  An appropriate amount of salt does not make things taste salty, it makes things taste more like themselves.  It makes things taste, period.

The real culprit behind high blood pressure and other diet-related ailments is processed foods.  Frozen and pre-made foods have a ridiculous amount of sodium.  One serving could easily exceed your daily allowance.  Always, always always check the sodium content of canned and frozen products, packaged snacks, and even bread and baked goods.  As long as you’re cooking from scratch, however, feel free to grab the salt at the dinner table or while cooking.  You can safely consume up to a teaspoon per day (sodium-restricted diets, if recommended by your doctor, being an exception).

What to buy

I think that as long as you are purchasing whole spices, the brand shouldn’t really matter — just check the expiration date if there is one and make sure it is far into the future.  I do really love Penzey’s however; they sell very high-quality spices and seasoning mixes that I rely on to add flavor to my dishes.

Buying spices in bulk is also ideal because you can just purchase however much you need.  There is also an Amish market near my home which sells a pretty amazing array of spices, and at very reasonable prices.

I would avoid buying most pre-mixed seasonings, and opt for mixing them yourself when working with standard recipes, such as curry powder, “pumpkin pie spice,” chili powder, etc.  I do have quite a few seasoning mixes from Penzey’s on hand, and some of them are really quite good, but again, whenever you are working with pre-ground spices there will be a lack of flavor.

Sometimes, you can tweak them yourself — for example, I normally have some chili powder on hand, but I make sure to add freshly ground cumin and fresh garlic to recipes even though the chili powder technically already has them.  Ground chilies themselves tend to retain their heat and flavor pretty well, but the remaining ingredients do not.

Experimenting with new herbs and spices can be a fun way to liven up your cooking and really make dishes your own.  If you have a Penzey’s or other similar store nearby, I highly recommend taking a trip just to browse the aisles and take in the heavenly aromas of each ingredient.  Choose a few of your favorites and just start adding it to your favorite recipes.  Understanding the properties of each spice can really transform your basic recipes, as well as your own knowledge and skills in the kitchen.  Give it a try!

-R

Buy dried: Buy fresh:
Oregano Basil
Parsley Cilantro
Dill Mint
Thyme Tarragon
Sage
Marjoram
Savory
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2 thoughts on “Herbs and spices 101

  1. Barsyames

    A cardiologist once told me that sodium in diet is the culprit behind only about a quarter of the cases of high blood pressure. When you consider the ridiculous amounts of sodium in pretty much anything you buy premade, you’re probably going to have a sodium intake well below the norm in this country simply by making food from scratch.

    Reply

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